The rat children of Romania: Winter bites, and the street urchins head for the sewers

WHEN ADRIANNA was seven her mother tried to murder her by hurling her under a car. The mother's husband had died of cancer and she could no longer afford to look after her daughter. Adrianna woke up in hospital to find her left leg had been amputated. She went back home when the hospital released her. Her mother threw her out again.

Adrianna won't try going home again: 'My mother has some bad men there at my house.' She smiles as she speaks. Most of her companions have similar histories, and she doesn't see anything horrific about her own.

Adrianna has lived on the streets of Timisoara, Romania, for 10 years. Although she's now 17, hopping barefoot across the road to try to find food, she looks like a little girl. The stump of her leg is badly healed, under the skin the thigh bone looks rough and lumpy.

Ceausescu banned contraception in 1967 and, at the same time, made abortions illegal. He later reneged on abortions but only for mothers with more than five children. Romania's birth rate doubled without an economic safety-net to support the population rise. The result is disastrous. Parents who cannot afford to feed their children give them up to orphanages or throw them out. Some parents, in desperation, murder their children. The orphanages are over-crowded and squalid, and many young children live on the streets.

There are many street children like Adrianna fighting for survival in Timisoara but no official estimates of numbers are available. Adrianna and her friends know of about 100 other street children living in their area. There are lots of groups scattered around the city. The youngest members are only six or seven years old.

The children spend their days begging for food and money. 'Muncari, Muncari,' they say, pointing to their stomachs. When they are given food, they smile and say 'Multso mesc', and share it out between them. Somewhere among the rats and the filth they have learnt caring and politeness.

In the street outside the market place there is shouting and a scuffle. A man selling odds and ends on the pavement has seen one of the street children carrying a little, ragged plastic bag of glue. He fights the child for the bag, snatches it, and burns it.

Money that passers-by give them is usually spent on solvents. Although the children know the dangers, they do not heed them. The fumes deaden them to even the most basic cravings. 'I feel hungry, that's why,' one of Adrianna's friends shrugs when asked what makes him sniff glue.

The street children wear strange combinations of clothes they have found in rubbish bins or picked up from the pavement. Many of them are barefoot all year round.

In the sweltering Romanian summer the children sleep wherever they can. One group of children shelters in a small, concreted area behind a newsagent's stand. Others sleep in empty railway carriages and on warm sewer lids when the days start to chill. Some children sleep in the left-luggage lockers at the station. In the freezing winter, when temperatures can drop to below minus 20 degrees centigrade, many children go down into the sewers. The steam from the hot water pipes keeps them alive. Sometimes, a few lucky children find room in a nearby orphanage but they must sleep four or five to a bed and run the risk of being robbed of the little they have.

Carlotta is a nurse working in the emergency room at Timisoara station. She also treats the street children that shelter nearby. 'It is hard to say how many children there are living like this,' she says. 'I think it has got much worse in the last year. A child comes to this office most days.' She treats the minor accidents and illnesses herself. If something is serious she will take the child to the paediatric hospital in the town centre for treatment.

Today, she is attending to Patric, a little boy who sneaked on to a goods train at Yash, near the Russian border, and travelled down to Timisoara. He ran away from the orphanage at Yash because the older children were beating him up. He now lives behind the newsagent's stand. Today, he got into a fight and has been brought by two of his friends to have his cut head attended to.

Patric's friend, Carol, looks like an old man in his long checked coat and rather comic Andy Capp hat. But he is only 15. He ran away from home when his mother tried to kill him with a kitchen knife. 'I had three sisters and two brothers and my mother had no money to keep us all. She tried to kill me because I was the oldest,' he explains matter-of-factly.

Newly orphaned children whose friends or neighbours bother to contact the social services are referred to a kind of transit lounge home in Timisoara before they go into an orphanage. The home is proud that they have just one child to a bed. They only have 15 beds. They say they have no room to take in street children.

An orphanage at Lucoj, 30 miles from Timisoara, professes to have an 'open door' policy. A doctor there explains: 'It is open here. The children can run away or they can come in. Conditions in the family are worse than in the orphanage, and the children want to stay here. Some children who have parents go home for holidays. But most of them still want to come back here afterwards.'

But the doors are not open to everyone.' The street children are not accepted here. They have bad habits.'

Adrianna hops niftily back across the road on her one bare foot. Patric, proudly displaying his pristine white-bandaged head, nods to his friends and together they wander off up the railway line.

(Photograph omitted)

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